Up Close & Personal
A helping hand …
Maria Voytko doesn’t look too far ahead into the future; she appreciates today and focuses her energy on helping others within the community. The youngest of seven, the 33-year-old Moscow native and Marywood graduate is the Librarian/Media Specialist at Riverside High School, as well as an active volunteer with The American Red Cross and The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Eastern PA. She sees herself as yet another resource for the students, as well as a driving motivator, encouraging her students get involved and volunteer. Diagnosed with AML Leukemia at the age of 17, Voytko has seen the battlefield of cancer first-hand and is very proud to see her community come together once again to support a current Riverside student in need. She’s a survivor who lends a helping hand. Meet Maria Voytko…
How did you decide you wanted to be a librarian?
I went to college to be a high school history teacher or anything in the social sciences like psychology, sociology and economics. While I was attending Marywood, I did a work study program in the library and fell in love with it. They hired me after I graduated and I acquired all this library knowledge. I received my certification in library sciences and was hired by Riverside School District.
Was reading a big part of your life?
I was a reluctant, struggling reader. I actually remember getting pulled out of my sixth grade science class to attend a special reading class. I read a lot now. I read mostly young adult books because I like to be knowledgeable about what the kids are reading. It opens up dialogue and I can suggest other books that they may like. It helps me help the students make good choices.
Tell me about your involvement with Read Across America.
Read Across America is a celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday (March 2) and reading in general. All of America celebrates the same week. The school goes all out with a guest speaker, door decorating contests and speed reading competitions with Dr. Seuss books, which are tongue twisters. The students create a movie trailer for a featured book and we play those on the T.V. during the school announcements. When students look at certain books, there is a book trailer that they can watch that will promote the book.
It seems that you, the reluctant reader, have changed.
I enjoy this because I am tapped into every subject in every grade and every project in every curriculum. I have to make sure the library collection reflects the curriculum, so I always know what is going on in every classroom and I have the resources for the students in every subject. I get to interact with all of the students and enjoy being another resource for them.
You are also a cancer survivor. Talk about your diagnosis and your battle with the disease.
I was diagnosed with AML Leukemia three weeks before my senior year of high school. I wasn’t feeling well, went home, got a simple blood test and was immediately admitted to the hospital. I had to move 3,000 miles to Seattle where I was treated for seven months. I was on the pediatric floor because I was 17, which was very difficult. I was around children who were dying. I would get to know these little kids and the next day, they wouldn’t be there. I was completely removed from my friends and family. It was my mother and I, alone. It was hard because I didn’t have support. Although I knew everyone was supporting me back home, I couldn’t see any of my friends. This is also before the days of Skype and Facebook. People were mailing me hand-written cards through snail mail. That experience changed my life, of course, for numerous reasons. Far beyond enjoying life and appreciating it much more, but being a high school teacher, I make sure that my students are very grateful for what they have, especially their health. I also try to teach them how important volunteering is.
You are very involved with The American Red Cross and The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Eastern PA. How important is that for you to keep going and stay motivated?
I have been volunteering for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society since 2004, and the Red Cross since 2007. It’s very important to get out there and volunteer because most of these organizations depend on volunteers. I have students who volunteer with me every single year. Many of them tell me that they want to keep volunteering and I tell them that is wonderful, but to try to seek out something that really means something to them and they’ll get more out of it.
Did you ever think while you were fighting cancer, that you would not only beat cancer, but become an active volunteer helping others ?
Not at all. When I was going through it I was focusing on living. I couldn’t even think that far into the future, even when I was in remission. I try not to look too far into the distant future. Although I’m 16 years in remission, anything can happen. When I heard about The Leukemia Society, I just jumped right in.
Today, Riverside student Gary Lukasiewicz is currently involved in a very difficult fight with a rare form of cancer and the rally cry #KeepFightingGary has really spread throughout the area.
The world actually. Twitter blew up over this. Now businesses have it posted on their signs and flyers inside. It’s everywhere. It makes me really proud to be part of the Riverside community because that’s something I try to instill on the students as much as possible. They’re doing something special for someone else. It makes me proud to say that I have nothing to do with it. They did it all on their own. No one pushed them in any direction. The students took off and did this all by themselves and it makes me very proud that they are doing this for him. They are giving him so much support. They don’t know this but, when I was sick, Riverside was there for me, sending mail and cards, and I didn’t even attend school there. I think it’s just continuing. I can’t speak for Gary, but I could just imagine that he feels the same way I did just knowing that there is so much support, not only fighting for him, but with him to overcome this.
What does that say about the local community, not only in regards to Gary’s current fight, but with your past battle as well?
A lot of things change in a community, but when one of us is down, everyone rallies around them and makes sure they get back up on their feet and support them fully. We’ll never let one of our own go down. There are a lot of great organizations in this community that are here to help. — tom graham